Electric-car fanatics just keep plugging
CATHEYS VALLEY, Calif. – In a ranch house atop a hillock far, far from the highway, Dave Raboy and his wife brooded over a looming loss. Detroit wanted to crush their truck. The squat Ford pickup was powered entirely by an electric battery, a byproduct of California’s push for zero-emission vehicles. But the auto industry had declared electric vehicles a marketplace loser. Raboy’s beloved pickup, and scores of other leased EVs, faced a date with the scrap yard. Reluctant to let a perfectly good truck die young, Raboy decided to take on Detroit. California remains a hotbed for EV true believers. When their beloved wheels are threatened, they fight. When they lose a few to the wrecking yard, they grieve. After General Motors began crushing its revolutionary EV1 a couple years ago, leaseholders held a mock funeral at a Los Angeles cemetery – with a rabbi, an electric car shrouded in black crepe and emotional farewells. “She died before her time,” intoned one mourner. Devotees go undercover to track down death-row EVs. They chase freight trucks loaded with cars headed to the scrap heap. One flew an airplane over a desert wrecking yard, snapping photos of flattened steel corpses in hopes of shaming automakers into offering reprieves for others. “We want to keep the last remaining cars on the road,” Raboy said. “We want to show people there was once a choice – and there could be again.” All-electric cars got a boost in 1990 with California’s quest for zero-emission vehicles. But production never took off. The auto industry blamed real-world liabilities, such as 100-mile range limits and the need to plug in for hours at a time.
“We simply could not afford to lose any more money on a product that appealed to such a small number of people,” said Dave Barthmuss, a GM spokesman. GM reported losing $1 billion on EVs before the company, like every other big automaker, halted production. The first EV drivers – “early adopters,” the industry calls them – considered their electric cars “almost members of their family,” Barthmuss said. But there was a downside to that embrace, he said. “Like any member of the family, they managed to ignore the faults.” EV buffs say Detroit and Japan never gave EVs a chance, refusing to market the newfangled vehicles aggressively. Auto executives publicly grumbled about the cars, then sued the state of California and lobbied to thwart the zero-emission campaign. The state repealed the mandate in 2003. Rather than look to EVs to combat pollution, California decided to promote cleaner gas engines and electric-gas hybrids, with hydrogen fuel cells a long-range solution to smoggy skies. Nearly all the automakers began collecting their electric cars after leases expired and sending them to the crusher. They said they had no choice. As the vehicles aged, they predicted, problems would crop up with scarce parts, service difficulties and safety liabilities. The result has been the automotive equivalent of extinction. GM’s EV1 is a virtual museum piece. The Honda EV+ is kaput. Nissan’s Altra EV is an endangered species. Activists have managed to save some cars and trucks, but not before Toyota scrapped hundreds of RAV4 EVs. At most, 1,500 EVs built by major automakers survive nationwide, most of them in California. But EV aficionados carry on like the French Underground. They refuse to give up. In November 2004, Ford sent a letter threatening to repossess Raboy’s pickup. With his wife and a few dozen other true believers, the 34-year-old software consultant mounted a protest, unfurling banners (“Declare Independence from Oil” and “Save Dave’s Truck”) and camping out over a frigid week in January outside a Sacramento Ford dealership. On Day 8, Ford waved the white flag, offering to sell its last few electric Rangers to Raboy and other leaseholders for $1 each.
Activists celebrated with a parade of EV cars and trucks around the state Capitol. What binds the last of the EV drivers are heavy doses of frustration, a leftward tilt on environmental issues and an unabashed love for the vehicles. Raboy and his wife, Heather Bernikoff, live on a 160-acre ranch in the foothills of Mariposa County. Green grass waves across hills dotted with cattle. The Ranger sits out back, just off the laundry room, the better to tap a 220-volt washing-machine outlet. The couple uses the pickup – bearing the license plate PLUGNGO – for chores, grocery runs and hauling things around the ranch. Raboy loves the surprising acceleration and the freedom from oil changes and most mechanical glitches. Down the hill, facing the sunny south, cobalt-blue solar panels provide almost all the juice needed to run the truck, Raboy said. “We mostly farm photons.” Activists say rising oil prices will help renew interest in EVs, which can tap electricity produced from sources such as natural gas, wind and the sun. One way to revive the EV, they say, is to plug into the growing popularity of hybrid cars. A typical gasoline-electric hybrid combines a small internal combustion engine with an electric motor that helps increase gas mileage. EV activists say hybrids are fine but can be improved. They’re prodding automakers to add a bigger battery, beefier motors and a 110-volt plug. By plugging in each night, they say, owners can dramatically extend the car’s electric range. Proponents have engineered a plug-in version of Toyota’s hot-selling Prius hybrid that they say boosts performance to 100 miles per gallon. (After long denying much interest in the concept, Toyota recently confirmed that it is considering the possibility of adding an optional plug to its hybrid fleet.) The long-range payoff, as EV adherents see it, is to create a marketplace willing to replace the pump with the plug, reopening the door for battery electric cars. Automakers remain dubious. Inexpensive, long-range batteries remain a thing of the future, they say, and the U.S. electric supply is both fragile and polluting, a “dirty grid” powered largely by coal. “In my mind,” said Bill Reinert, Toyota’s U.S. advanced technology chief, “that’s just like a longer tailpipe.”
But some regions, such as California, have a more environmentally friendly electricity mix, and “it’s easier to clean up a single plant than a million tailpipes,” said Santa Monica EV activist Paul Scott. Scott, an executive with a Hollywood visual-effects company, has done his part to keep EVs on the road. Last spring, he teamed up with Marc Geller, a San Francisco photographer who had a role in saving the last of Ford’s TH!NK city cars. The two helped launch DontCrush.com, a nexus of Internet and street-corner activism, to fight Toyota’s plans to flatten RAV4 EVs returning from lease. They coaxed protest letters from government leaders – including California’s EPA chief – and environmental groups. A few weeks ago, Toyota backed down, agreeing in principle to sell or lease its last 500 electric SUVs. “We took the temperature of the customer base,” Toyota spokeswoman Cindy Knight said. “People are passionate about these vehicles.” EV devotees see a changed world – war in the Middle East, rising pump prices, flagging SUV sales. Even some experts see a possible rebirth of the electric vehicle. A mass-market shift to hydrogen fuel cells in cars is not expected until 2025 at the earliest. There may be “a window of opportunity for battery electric vehicles to come back,” said Tim Lipman, a research engineer at the University of California-Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies. A National Academy of Sciences panel added its voice, recommending in an Aug. 3 report that automakers look anew at EVs and devote more research to high-energy batteries. Few expect Detroit to start a stampede. The only auto manufacturer talking about mass-manufacturing an electric car is Mitsubishi Motors, but that tiny vehicle is set for sale only in Japan, and not until 2010. Raboy, unfazed, is taking his truck on the road. He plans to spend days off hitting classic car shows and similar gatherings – anywhere an audience might be found for his message of energy independence and smog-free skies.
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